INTERVIEW: Led Zeppelin Masters’ Vince Contarino talks touring, perspex and John Bonham

It fell upon a time, befitting the British Establishment, to once and for all solve the endemic criminal fraternities’ disposition towards upsetting the equilibrium of The State through larcenous diversions – poaching a rabbit, stealing a loaf of bread, being Irish, American or Seditious – slagging-off whichever corpulent/mad George was currently squatting his fat rump on the throne. The answer – Transportation. Ship the thieving buggers off ‘down-under’. A bit harsh granted, what with the risk of colliding with slave-ships going the other way. But – the upside bonus to a down-under debacle is that The Reviews Hub’s John Kennedy gets to chat with Australian auteur, Vince Contarino. Tungsten-torsoed, leather-lunged and damnably engaging (warning – understatement spoiler ahead) front-manof the ‘Stairway To Heaven:Led Zeppelin Masters’UK & European Tour celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Led Zeppelin’s eponymous album. Last year’s brain-bludgeoning gig at The Symphony Hall seriously compromised the structural integrity of the foundations notwithstanding the audiences’ internal organs.

Tagging along to embellish any possible sonic pot-hole voids, yet again there’s a whole lotta stage-full of love compliments of thirty-five piece Black Dog Orchestra (do you see what they’ve done there?). We pitched some inquisitive googlies to our antipodean bellows-maestro.

You’ve certainly set the return tour bar very high indeed following 2017’s incandescent UK gigs. With a full band and orchestra there’s certainly no room for a scaled-down Stonehenge and proportionally-challenged rustic dancers – so what’s the plan?

Never underestimate the efficacy and potency of paper mache and the flexibility it allows set designers. Sadly, there will be no Stonehenge replicas on stage this tour. However, when it comes to rhythmically challenged dancers……I’m it!

Last time we opted for a dynamic with a theatrical build for the show with our song choice and placement, but this time we are going for the rock dynamic: start it with a bang and take the audience on a journey from there.

In small-town Tamworth, Staffordshire 1969, a 15-year-old boy was mowing his mum’s lawn one Saturday afternoon. On the transistor radio (ask your grandparents), it’s John Peel’s Top Gear. Out shrieks 2.30 minutes of apocalyptic total electric orgasm – Communication Breakdown. Cathartic, epiphanic. And yourself? (Maybe not the orgasm motif then!)

For some reason, Led Zeppelin (i) eluded me as a child. I missed it completely. For me, it was in 1972. I was twelve years old and my family was travelling to our summer holiday destination Moonta Bay, which is located in the Copper Coast region of Northern Yorke Peninsula, South Australia. Anyway, my brother Sam had a Teac reel-to-reel where he would tape songs off of the radio. Sunrise was just about to happen when Black Dog started playing. The beams of light amplified the music in my head and transported me to a place that, quite frankly, I have never ever returned from. That opening wailing vocal line and then the unison riff, that was primal and sexy. It changed my view on music.

At your Birmingham gig in 2017, you told a warming story about you guys searching out Black Country and other places John Bonham frequented – probably wise to have avoided the pub – it turns out rather serendipitous – do tell.

We were on our way from Bristol to Newcastle, which is about 300 miles. We had a day off, so time was not a problem, and our drummer Brad Polain wanted to visit John Bonham’s resting place in Rushock at St Michaels churchyard, so off we went to pay our respect. Of course, we got lost in the beautiful countryside, and it was an absolute pleasure to meander aimlessly through what I called tracks rather than roads. We stopped and asked directions a couple of times but still managed to remain castaway on land! As we were driving through a hedgerow-lined road/track we noticed a vision of beauty in the form of a lady of advancing years, so we thought we better ask for directions. We wound down the window and before we could ask anything this gorgeous lady asked, “Have you come to visit John?” What a beautiful and charming way to put it, especially as that was exactly what we were doing.

We were commuting in a spacious people mover that was set up nicely in the back to rest, so most of us were obscured from sight because the left-hand side of the van did not have windows. As Paul Gray (keyboards, RIP) explained we were a touring band from Australia, the lady’s eyes lit up and she began telling him about her visit to Australia and her travels on the train trips her and her late husband took not too long ago. I could go on and on, but I will try and cut it short, so the reader does not get bored. She told us she knows the Bonham family because they live on the property directly across the road. Her children used to play with Jason Bonham when they were little. That’s when we opened the side door to the van and in a startled voice she shrieked, “Oh my, there’s more of you!” Brad asked her name and she replied “Victoria Jennings” and he said, “As in Jennings Farm?”. “Yes”, she replied. That’s when the penny dropped for us. Of course, Led Zeppelin wrote a song about Jennings Farm, which is an electric version of Bron-Y-Aur Stomp. She told us little anecdotes about John and “the rest of the lads”, as she put it. She told us the family dog Enzo, an English Black cattle dog (named after Enzo Ferrari), may have been used in one of their songs because he would wonder over the road where “those Zep Boys” rehearsed.

Anyway, we traded stories, hugs and kisses and we still keep in touch and hope to see her in Birmingham when we play the Symphony Hall on the 13th of April.

By the way, we were on the direct road to St Michael’s Church, so we reached our intended destination that day.

Given the recent court decision where a classical musician’s case for hearing damages might cause ructions in the business, it’s notable that you have the drummer encased in Perspex shields. Is that to protect the fragrant ears of the beautiful string section – or to just to protect them from the drummer – legacy of Bonzo, bless him?

Hahaha both! The Perspex is used for a couple of reasons. The string and wind instruments are not very loud so the sound of pounding drums in the style of John Bonham makes it very difficult for those musicians to hear what they are playing. Also, we don’t want drums spilling into the microphones that are amplifying and mixing the strings and woodwind. The sound of the PA system coming from the front is massive, so the orchestra musicians are under duress already without adding to the problem with loud stage sounds.

Zeppelin did set the standard for marathon sets and you guys cover eighteen songs more or less full-on. Presumably, in these more health & safety (staying alive) awareness days you choose a more Zen than lion’s den approach to relaxation? No TV/swimming-pool interface indulgences, notwithstanding sharks now being a protected species (from road-crews, at least).

When you have 17 gigs in 23 days there is no margin for weathering and erosion caused by misadventure. We take what we do very seriously because we are under no illusion of the expectations placed upon us by the lovers of Led Zeppelin, and rightly so. We want to present ourselves in the best physical and mental condition possible to give the performance the energy and intensity is respectfully deserves. However, when the tour is over, I can tell you that after 40-plus years as a professional I have picked up some great strategies for relaxing, unwinding and general mayhem. I don’t put sugar in my tea or coffee, so don’t fuck with me because I’m hardcore!

And finally – You’re chilling outside your beach-condo when an ominous tidal-surge portends the imminent Nemesis arrival of a Godzilla-like creature spawned from the toxic rhetoric of social-media dumped in the Marianas Trench. Which Led Zeppelin album do you rescue to show the surviving, post-apocalyptic children, what music was really about? Starting…. Now!

If I was to choose the one album for me it would be Led Zeppelin III. I fell in love with that album when I was 13 years old and still love it just as much today. Having said that, if I were thinking of educating children, in general, it would be Led Zeppelin IV, because it has the most tracks that people recognize, even if they are not Led Zeppelin fans, probably because that album had the strength to infiltrate this ultra-commercial and fashion-conscious world we live in.

The ten-date UK tour will begin at Liverpool’s Philharmonic on Tuesday 2 April 2019 and end at London’s Eventim Apollo on Sunday, 14 April. Tickets are on sale now, available from all venues and www.ticketmaster.co.uk.

John Kennedy | Image: Contributed

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The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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